Philippines’ Underwater Fantasy

The Philippines’ Navy is eyeing a new submarine. But can it afford to keep up with its ASEAN peers?

Regionalism is generally thought to have fostered a great deal of progress in Southeast Asia, and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are sufficiently enthusiastic about their regional project to be in the throes of setting up a more extensive ‘ASEAN Community’.

However, formalising the concept of a Southeast Asian region arguably has its drawbacks. One of them may be its encouragement of the sense that Southeast Asia is a ‘regional security complex’, Buzan and Wæver’s model of a group of states with interlinked security concerns.

The Philippine Navy’s reported pursuit of a submarine capability is an indication that Southeast Asia’s emergence as a regional security complex is putting undesirable pressure on countries situated within who can’t really afford to be there. For the Philippines, submarines are an annoying distraction: its chronically underfunded military has far more basic needs. But, with most of its neighbours busy procuring submarines of their own, Manila risks being sucked into the costly vortex of regional military balancing.

If senior Philippine naval officers are agitating about submarines, it’s purely because they can see their counterparts in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam doing exactly the same thing. China’s growing naval power is often cited as the reason behind Southeast Asian countries’ submarine investments but, while there’s certainly some truth in this, China has had a submarine fleet for a very long time. At least as important has been the development of Southeast Asia’s own security structure.

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For the Philippines, this means an unpalatable choice: dig deep for the resources to compete or accept relegation to Southeast Asia’s security periphery. Thailand’s mooted purchase of used German submarines for around $220 million provides an indication of the level of investment that Manila would have to make even for a second-hand capability. The country’s procurement budget for the next five years stands at $970 million, and it’s hard to see submarines—with all the human resources and infrastructure it would entail—coming out of that.

US assistance might enable the Philippines to keep its head above water in the regional security complex, meaning that the big decisions about Philippine security could well be made, with some degree of historical irony, in Washington rather than in Manila. The pro-Philippines lobby, led notably by retired Adm. James A. Lyons, would like to see F-16s and frigates sent Manila’s way—and that’s before so much as considering submarines.

Should this kind of help come the Philippines’ way, then the country may be able to join the submarine race being run by its Southeast Asian neighbours. But if this help isn’t forthcoming, then the numbers for the Philippine military simply don’t add up. Domestic counterinsurgency campaigns, and the means to conduct them, need to be prioritised ahead of big-ticket prestige programmes, just as policing your surface waters effectively—something the Philippine Navy currently struggles to do—should come before worrying about what lies beneath. Manila has always been a strong proponent of Southeast Asian regionalism. But when it comes to buying submarines, it should maybe go its own way.